Most businesses are obsessed with competition. The problem with that way of thinking is that competitors come and go. Aiming to be better than the competition means that the business direction is largely driven by what its competitors are doing. Instead, today’s businesses would be better served by focusing on the consumer and working toward constantly improving. As Simon Sinek put it, businesses should be playing the business game with an infinite mindset rather than playing a finite game to beat the competition.
To clarify the difference between a finite and an infinite mindset, businesses with a finite mindset operate on the assumption that all the competitors are known, that there is an endpoint where you can declare victory or defeat, and that the rules of the competition are well defined and accepted by everyone. With a finite mindset, the objective is to win.
With an infinite mindset, a business operates on the assumption that there are both known and unknown players and that the competition or rules are irrelevant because the business is focused on customers and constant self-improvement. With an infinite mindset, the objective is simply to remain relevant for as long as possible.
“With an infinite mindset, the objective is simply to remain relevant for as long as possible.”
Most businesses embrace a finite mindset and set their strategies accordingly. They want to be the best. They play to win. They want the competition to lose so they can win. They perform SWOT and competitive analyses to keep score. With a finite mindset, the business is focused on the competition while with an infinite mindset, it is focused on the future.
In the infinite mindset, the business is never satisfied with the present and there is no end where they can declare victory. This is not to say that they can’t celebrate milestones along the way, but unlike retiring, there is no off-ramp where you can ride off into the sunset and relax, hence the reliance on infinity.
Simon Sinek, author of the book “The Infinite Game” outlined a path for businesses to adopt an infinite mindset. He stated that there are five practices that a business needs to follow:
1. Having a noble purpose everyone can rally around
2. Creating an environment where people feel safe and trust others
3. Having rivals that the business can learn from
4. Being flexible enough to change direction or pivot and take a short-term hit
5. Having the courage to lead
For a business to have an infinite mindset, it should first have a cause or noble purpose that employees can rally around. Not the industry’s cause such as to provide quality healthcare or create a vibrant ecosystem to foster entrepreneurship. The business must answer the question as to why it is active in this industry. How does its purpose make it unique in the industry? You know you have a noble purpose when employees are willing to make sacrifices for the cause. Sacrifices may take the form of employees working extra hours, sharing their ideas, or turning down other job offers for more money because they strongly believe in the cause. This is one reason that non-profit organizations rarely pay the same wages to their employees for similar skills and knowledge as these workers are drawn to the non-profit organization because they embrace its noble purpose.
The Declaration of Independence is a great example of a noble purpose that was so powerful that the signers were willing to risk their lives and treasure for the cause. It should be noted that the signers didn’t call out England as if it were a competitor but focused on the noble purpose. “…that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” England was just the first step in the way of that cause.
A noble purpose is an articulated future state that the business stands for and that others can agree and are willing to commit to in the pursuit of advancing to the future state. When you have a noble purpose, you create a kind of gravity for employees that share your commitment to the cause of the future state that you describe. You want to attract idealists both in your customer base and workforce.
John F. Kennedy gave us a cause to go to the moon but that cause had a defined end. A noble purpose is endless. While the cause outlived Kennedy after a few visits to the moon, people stopped caring. The cause reached a conclusion. We made a few trips and then what? We stopped. Being a government-funded program, the money tap was left open but the cause had ended. Without a cause, NASA created Skylab, participated in the International Space Station, created a reusable space shuttle program but the cause was diluted. Soon, we had no fleet of space shuttles left and called our old adversary, Russia, to give us a ride to the space station. NASA, like every government institution and most businesses, operate with a finite mindset.
Kennedy and NASA would have been better off to share the noble purpose to explore life beyond our planet. The first step of that journey would be to place a man on the moon. From there, we will learn and the next step along our journey to explore life beyond our planet will become clearer.
Decades after America put a man on the moon, Elon Musk gave us a real noble purpose, to become an interplanetary species. His first step is to go to Mars, but that is just the next step in the never-ending quest to live beyond planet Earth.
To succeed today, you first need to have a noble purpose for people to rally around. The business needs to convey a sense of progress or advancing toward a cause or a future condition. The knowledge that you will never achieve an end but that you are on a journey with lots of twists and turns and new, yet unknown challenges to overcome is what makes a noble purpose.
A noble purpose is the force of gravity driving corporate workers to leave well-paying and safe jobs to explore lifestyle and side hustle entrepreneurship. It is the notion that you can control the direction based upon your unique cause. For most small business owners, there is no end game but simply the sense of adventure to see what lies ahead and the confidence that when a challenge presents itself, you will have the skills and tools to harness the value laid before you in support of your cause. The entrepreneurial journey gives your life a meaning that working for a corporation does not.
Next, the business must create an environment of trust so that innovation and cooperation are elevated to new levels.
When I left the United States Coast Guard to work for Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), there was a clearly stated contract that if you became an employee, you were guaranteed employment for life. For employees, it was ok for leadership to maximize stockholder value because you were told that in the end, you would keep your job. Then the minicomputer wave ended. Layoffs began to slowly weed out the deadwood and were accepted as an extraordinary measure to what we assumed was a short-term problem. Layoffs rapidly increased in frequency and intensity. As a manager, I soon became known as the hatchet man. Trust in the company was snuffed out. Good talent left for greener pastures and the culture declined rapidly until the only option for DEC was to be acquired or absorbed by another entity. HP acquired DEC with the hope that with new management, the culture would be restored.
When you no longer trust your employer, you are no longer honest with them. You hide your failures and never admit if you need help or show weakness or venerability for fear that it will be used against you. Employees lie, hide and fake their way through their work lives. In these businesses, the goal is just not to get fired. Taking on some risk is necessary to advance toward your noble purpose and without trust, employees do not feel safe.
Recently, SpaceX has had back-to-back crashes concerning their Starship vehicle. SpaceX sees these crash landings as learning opportunities and not failures. When speaking to his team at SpaceX, Elon Musk famously said: “Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”
To avoid failure because you no longer trust your employer means that you throttle down risk-taking and soon discover that you are falling behind until you become irrelevant in the market.
Lifestyle businesses double down on making sure that all stakeholders trust them. This means being ethical. When you get it right, innovation, trust, and cooperation are elevated to new levels.
For a business to have an infinite mindset, it must have rivals. Rivals are different from competitors. You try to beat the competition. A rival on the other hand is someone whose strengths you admire and choose to emulate or learn from.
Rivals help you recognize your weaknesses and are the reason you have a mentor to inspire you. Rivals are not someone to beat but are identified to help you focus and strive to be better. During the cold war, the Soviet threat was a worthy rival of the United States. As rivals, each nation’s armed forces continued to look for ways to innovate the technology of weapons.
Apple saw IBM as a rival but not specifically to displace them as #1 in computing. When IBM’s dominance of computing gave way to DEC, followed by Microsoft and PC manufacturers, Apple looked to each one as rivals and not as competition in computer technology. Apple’s rivals came and went but because they had an infinite mindset, Apple sought to stay in the game and constantly improve.
To have an infinite mindset means that you have to be willing to consider taking a different path toward your noble purpose. Apple abandoned the Apple II with its text-based user interface in favor of the Macintosh computer with an entirely new graphical user interface and mouse, which was a huge difference from all previous generations of computers. Later, Apple went after the mp3 music market with the iPod and iTunes that dramatically altered the direction of music players. Not long after that, they introduced the iPhone which turned a cell phone into a mobile device capable of doing a lot more than making a phone call. Apple’s rivals came and went as Apple pivoted to different business models.
Walt Disney was the pioneer of animation but sold everything to follow his noble purpose and opened Disneyland as he continued along his infinite mindset based on inspiring people with storytelling.
Both Apple and Disney were willing to make huge directional shifts that were “bet the farm” decisions because they were driven by a cause. If you are not willing to blow up your company to keep improving, someone else will.
Businesses with a finite mindset limit their options. One of my mentors, David King, when explaining how IBM succumbed to DEC and DEC to Microsoft and the Personal Computers, etc., said to me that with each wave of computing, the incumbent was unwilling to cannibalize their revenue engine, and this is why they were unable to dominate the succeeding wave.
Blockbuster Video saw itself as a video rental business and not in the entertainment business. Blockbuster Video saw how the Netflix subscription model was growing but since it made a sizable amount of money from late fees that a subscription model would end, it had to ignore this very obvious evolution.
Kodak considered itself to be in the film industry and missed the digital imaging revolution even though Kodak invented the technology in 1975. Because Kodak made its income from manufacturing and developing films, Kodak chose to suppress its digital imaging technology as it would cannibalize the market they depended on. For a while, Kodak licensed their digital imaging technology to other companies, but when the patent ran out and revenue from licensing dried up, so did Kodak’s revenue and they went bankrupt.
One reason that I discourage some of my small business clients from writing a business plan for the primary purpose of using it to secure investment money, is that when you take money from an investor, you are often locked into the plan you used to raise the money. Then, it is all about the execution of the plan. When new evidence is uncovered along your journey that would warrant that the business considers making a pivot, it is hard to go back to investors and say “Guess what, I was wrong and now I want to go in an entirely different direction. Maybe it will be a good move or maybe not.” However, with a clearly articulated noble purpose for the business and making it obvious to investors that you are on a journey whereby the direction is much more fluid than just executing a plan, you bake in the permission to respond to changes and opportunities that may lie ahead. This is the reason many investors invest in the person and not the idea because they know that the person is on a journey and the idea is just the first of many destinations.
The final element is courage. It is not easy to operate a business with an infinite mindset. Markets, family members, and incentive structures all tell you to protect the future and to abandon your cause.
Anyone can adopt the practices of an infinite mindset for a few days or weeks. But it takes consistency over intensity to see real change. For example, you could work out for 52 straight hours and you will only feel aches and pains. On the other hand, when you work out for twenty minutes, three times a week for a year, you are more likely to see some positive results.
It takes courage, will, and desire to continue to follow a noble purpose to maintain an infinite mindset.
Today, you need a noble purpose and not an endgame, you need to foster a culture of trust, identify rivals that you can learn from, be able to pivot and eat a short-term loss for potential gains down the road, and the courage to take actions when the establishment is calling you stupid.
Does your business have an infinite mindset?